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Sunday, 23 November 2008

Caracas has become one of the most violent cities on the planet. Armed gangs competing over turf and drug deals wage ruthless, low-level warfare

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Caracas has become one of the most violent cities on the planet. Armed gangs competing over turf and drug deals wage ruthless, low-level warfare in the slums. Nationally, homicides have soared to more than 13,000 a year, with 2,710 in Caracas alone, according to leaked government figures. That gives a national rate of 48 per 100,000 people. In some Caracas slums the rate rises to 130. The rate in England and Wales is 1.4.In opinion polls Venezuelans consistently rank safety as their main concern, with 64 per cent expressing fear of being attacked in the street. Kidnappings have also surged, especially 'express kidnappings' in which victims or relatives pay an immediate relatively modest ransom.President Hugo Chávez may pay a political price today in local and regional elections. Voters are expected to vent frustration at crime - and shoddy public services - by rejecting some of his mayoral and state governor candidates.'It's mayhem here. And the government does nothing,' said María Elena Delgado, 54, a housewife in Petare, a vast slum in eastern Caracas. 'I have to think about my children.' The four surviving ones, that is. Three of her sons have been gunned down, including one before Chávez came to power a decade ago.Opinion polls suggest el comandante remains popular, with approval ratings well over 50 per cent, but that anger over crime could lose him control of once loyal bastions such as Petare.Chávez speaks in public daily, often for hours, but seldom mentions insecurity. He has blamed crime on capitalism and poverty, and said if his family was starving he would steal. 'The perception that crime has soared is a weak point for him,' said Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela's University of the East. 'He can't talk about crackdowns because that would contradict his whole discourse.' Some critics claim the President's denunciations of inequality and 'squealing oligarchs' have encouraged youths to ease their poverty the fast way, with a gun. Partly thanks to Chávez's social programmes, poverty levels have dropped from 53 to 37 per cent. Yet crime has spiked. Corrupt and inept policing has been compounded by a flood of cocaine from neighbouring Colombia. Changing the justice minister every year - there have been 10 under Chávez- has wrought institutional havoc.The authorities have expressed interest in fresh strategies. Ken Livingstone, London's former Mayor and Chávez ally, is advising Caracas on community policing. The Justice Ministry, which no longer publishes murder statistics, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.In the hillside slums ringing the capital the bloodiest days are Friday and Saturday. The salsa and reggae beats blaring from bars can swiftly be drowned by gunfire, said Miguel Torres, 52, a taxi driver. 'One second you're sipping a Polar [beer], the next you're under the table.'Some weekends more than 50 corpses make their way to Plaza Auyantepuy. Monday is funeral day, with hearses sometimes getting stuck behind other cortèges. A gang recently ambushed and killed rivals at a funeral home. 'Often they are just 16- and 17-year-olds but already they are psychopaths,' said Jimin Pérez, director of Project Alcatraz, a scheme which tries to rehabilitate gangsters. 'These guys kill for nothing.'Project Alcatraz, which is funded by the Santa Teresa rum company, has had mixed results. Some gang members have renounced violence. Others have been assassinated within days of completing the programme. Some have lapsed back into killing. 'We have to offer them a chance of another life,' said Pérez. 'When they feel abandoned and alone, that is when they have no limits, no controls.'

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